Monday, August 31, 2009


Performance Space present De Quincey Co in RUN at CarriageWorks, Bay 20.

Two years ago De Quincey Co presented, as a site specific experience, a work called THE STIRRING. THE STIRRING had the audience travel around the then relatively “new” performance spaces of the CarriageWorks. In many beautiful and artfully designed and lit spaces,(Like the huge mound of steaming coal, or the deserted and decaying watch-shed beside the busy railway line lived in by a de Quincey dancer, with the clattering of the passing suburban trains lit inside with commuters, blissfully unaware of their performance contribution, moving through the landscape behind, as the sun set in the real universe from, the Earth’s perspective – magic!!!), dancers of the De Quincey Co interacted with the site for the audience. It was a beautiful experience and one timed by the audience, we chose where we were, what we saw, and for how long, all over the carriage works site, finishing ultimately, with all the audience and performers gathered around a fire, burning in a barrel, like a tribe of our primitive ancestors gathered for the warmth of this miracle of fire and the necessity of each other.

On one of the sites was a hung, gigantic piece of the old machinery, suspended on chains, that we all passed to reach destinations of the remnants of this building of another age and process, that could be swung, gently, by the passing parade of the audience, on its travels through the spaces. It is was the most inert of the opportunities of the event, and it was only with our tentative push that it came to life. However, the scale and danger of the piece was piercingly memorable. Man’s power was manifested in our fearful hands when we pushed it. It was truly “awesome” to behold and walk around and dodge, even though it could not harm us. The sense of the danger and the consequences to the human body if it decided to fall was pregnantly personal and it left an imprint in the memory.

In RUN, this new work with the De Quincey Co, the audience enters into a conventional seating, raked auditorium and are confronted by six or seven suspended pieces of huge, weighty, metal scaffolding or support pillars, possible relics of the site as it once was – a working carriage works for the NSW Railways. The back wall is a white scrim on which images of the dancers and the ‘sculptures’ are projected live (Video by Emanuella Prigioni), interacting with the huge shadows of the design elements (Rigging and engineering Design by Garnet Brownbill), (Lighting by Travis Hodgson) and the dancers. With a live score, played on this day, by Dale Gorfinkel and Peter Farrar (Jim Denley the sound originator being ill), consisting of ingenious found instruments - foam cups, toys etc held closely to micro-phones and ‘tortured’ and electronically enhanced, further accompanied by a saxophone manipulated and ‘played’ with, to create a most apt and haunting soundscape for the dancers and the thematics of the piece. (The digital media component, worked live by John Tonkin, screened on two screen combinations on either side of the front space, were peripherally interesting but not yet wholly integrated by the director into the piece).

This time, instead of the audience, as in THE STIRRING, travelling to the CarrigeWorks relics, the relics, now, collected and organised in this entrapped space present themselves to us.(The mountain as come to us.) They are statically hung in the air but then are moved and/or are swung around and through the space, and each accrues a personality and physical demeanour and identity unique to themselves. Even as they move, the sound of the tracks that they are hung from, the instruments which suspend them, when brought to life by the activities of the dancers, also, have their own voice. The weighted sound of the clack of the tracks, or the ratchet of the metronome swing of the gravity sprung swing of the pieces, at first disturbingly ominous, threatening, and then, in the case of the swinging metronomic pillar, the apparition in sound, of a gradual slowing of the clock as it unwinds to stillness or a journey to mortality: to a ‘death’, appears.

All of these relics of a great industrial time/age, once created and animated by man, then left to rust, decline to naught, albeit slowly, have been found, and now collected and hung and now brought back to life ,once again by man, but now in an awesome appreciation and in a perspective that is new and indeed redolent with admiration of the mightiness of what they once were. The De Quincey dancers, Tom Davies, Peter Fraser, Victoria Hunt and Linda Luke under the choreographic auspices of Tess de Quincey in the tradition of the Body Weather technique that the company has worked from and evolved, move around, and then, on, these great Props. They climb, drag, balance (magnificently precariously) around and on the objects of the history of an industrial heritage. Singly, in pairs, trio, and collectively they celebrate the interaction of the life force of man in interplays with their ancestor’s monstrous, at least in scale, and yet necessary creations and celebrate the physical autonomy and wonder of the human body as well. The odd movement expressions of these dancers emanating from their acquired traditions and interests are plastic in a way that the 'mechanistic objects' can’t. The very contrast enhances the wonder of each. Victoria Hunt, at the back in a wonderful costume of black tracksuit with a white stripe and little jacket and teased hair style – has all the sexual tension and presence of a Japanese manga figure - fascinating to behold; The 'animal' impersonations of the dancers across the floor at different times; the gravity defying ‘dance’ on the ladder, suspended in the front space of the audience eye line, while quoting from texts of maybe Wittgenstein and Anne Carson, grew in power through endurance not just in the athleticism, but, ultimately in an admiration of patterns and repeated gesture; the totally circus daring of the balance acts on the gigantic suspended ‘relics’; the final quartet of disciplined dance expression of the individuals and the collective on the floor, beneath the hanging tons of inert force, beautiful not only because of the aesthetics but also because of the dawning appreciation of the stamina of the company.

Maybe too long??!!! And certainly, my usual carp, that if you are going to use text (and why Not?) it requires as much rehearsal to communicate as the rest of the work. Maybe, more so, as this is not necessarily an oft use tool of expression by these artists.

The De Quincey Co once again takes charge of their practice and create a work that sits memorably in the psyche of the present age. The world and them the world and them and us. Inspiring and humbling for its ambition and near perfected achievement.

For more information click here.


Opera Australia present at the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House FIDELIO. Opera in two acts by Ludwig van Beethoven. Libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner and Georg Friedrich Treitschke, after Jean Nicholas Bouilly’s libretto Leonore ou L’amour conjugal.

This is Beethoven’s only finished opera. Written during the dominance of Napoleon on the stage of international affairs it is in the tradition of what has been called the “rescue opera” which so the program notes tell us: "Broadly speaking ,these pieces tended to cultivate ‘realistic’ settings, with a recurrent theme of the heroic release of an innocent hero from unjust imprisonment – one needn’t labour the point that this offered a metaphor of revolutionary liberation from tyranny." In this case Florestan (Julian Gavin) is rescued by Leonore, Florestan’s wife (Nicole Youl) from the prison of Don Pizzaro (Peter Coleman–Wright). First unsuccessfully presented in 1805, it was rewritten and re-organised and performed in this re-incarnation at the Karntnertortheatre, Vienna on 23rd May 1814. It is, then, nearly two hundred years old and certainly in the libretto story telling the piece creaks with age. The lyrics and dialogue, the plot and the “black and white” characterisations (He is the villain, he is the hero, she is the heroine, he is the good natured dupe etc) are fairly obvious and silly for a contemporary audience. What is great is the music and the possibility of great singing - the stand and deliver stuff – stand in a straight line across the stage, face front and sing your heart out: the aria, the duo the quartet, the sextet, the rousing chorus. It can be amazing.

This production was first presented by Opera Australia in 1992, directed by Michael Hampe. Now rehearsed by Cathy Dadd, it is a straight forward, simple staging and arrangement of the singers on stage to facilitate the virtue of the piece: the Music and singing. The set (John Gunther) is a mammoth and impressive realistic design of a number of scenes in a formidable and diabolical castle. It is a persuasive space for the singers to play in and quickly orientates the audience’s imagination to the world of the opera, plus, the design has simple design “tricks”, to keep the opera moving with few halts of action for set changes (especially, the mechanics in the act two transfer from the prison cell to the court yard of the castle – my audience applauded the device used!!!!!) The lighting (Nigel Levings) is also atmospheric and “romantic” to clarify the moods of the settings, both realistically and emotionally.

On this night there was a recording being made for broadcast. The Score conducted by Jonathan Darlington was especially impassioned and the orchestra sounded very engaged and fervid. Of the singing, while no expert in this area, it was to my ear very engaged as well. It was, however, the voice of Julian Gavin (Florestan) in the opening solo of the second act that enlightened me to the sense of the proper scale of sound that this work really needs to take off. It requires great voice. An heroic scale. Whilst the act one singing was interesting and genuinely pleasant, the potential to reveal why this opera is respected in the repertoire, still, had not fully revealed itself. With Mr Gavin’s introduction into the performance, the calibre of sound from all the singers lifted into another stratosphere. Nicole Youl (Leonore) found a partner that lifted her expression into a more challenged and charged place. Their duet was, as history tells me it would be, moving. The work from the rest of the company, especially the chorus in the last scene of the opera, was rousing and life enhancing. Like Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony and the Ode to Joy Chorus, this latter section of the opera has the potential to translate an audience into an optimistic embrace of the possibility of the goodness of being human and the power of the triumph of virtue over evil. (The antithesis of the message in Barrie Kosky’s contemporary adaptation of Monteverdi’s POPPEA - where the ‘good’ are punished and the ‘bad’ are rewarded). The Company all round was impressive. The less said of the acting the better. Peter Coleman-Wright (Don Pizzaro), usually so persuasive, not only as a singer but also as a characterised actor (Mandryka in ARABELLA, for instance) was disappointing. Conal Coad (Rocco) acted well but the voice sounded not as sure. I liked the work of Lorina Gore (Marzellline) and Stephen Smith (Jaquino) especially in the Opening act ‘love’ scenes, both in the singing and the acting of the situation, which requires some silliness to get through.

It is the music of Beethoven that is the joy of the experience and well worth hearing in this age of cynicism about the human condition in our times. It is a necessary tonic, for some of us. It can inspire the necessity to endure. It is indeed, still today, a “rescue opera”.

For more information click here.

Friday, August 28, 2009


Sydney Opera House Presents THE VIENNA SCHAUSPIELHAUS Production of Barrie Kosky’s POPPEA IN THE Drama Theatre.

Last Saturday I had a truly wonderful experience in the theatre at Barrie Kosky’s POPPEA. After my disappointing experience with Mr Kosky’s THE WOMEN OF TROY last year, and on seeing the publicity images of the production of POPPEA I was very resistant to attending. I tried to attend earlier (a Wednesday) but the seats were not good. I returned, on Saturday, the last day, leaving it to fate as to whether I would get in to see it. Fate was good to me. More than GOOD. To paraphrase, slightly, the Director’s program note: Resistance gave way to interest, interest gave way to fascination, fascination gave way to delight, delight gave way to moved ecstasy. I can appreciate Barrie’s thrill “to be able to bring the show to Sydney” from the Vienna Schauspielhaus, because, it is a remarkable work.

This is Barrie Kosky’s POPPEA, for he has taken the last of Monteverdi’s operas, THE CORANATION OF POPPEA, which he much admires, re-configures it to suit his own philosophic and theatrical purposes for the present time and audience, and with a bold masterstroke, interpolated some sequences of a twentieth century composer, Cole Porter, into the score and action. The sheer effrontery of it is not new to Mr Kosky and even despite the success of such time-cultural interpolations in THE LAST ECHO and THE WOMEN OF TROY, here in POPPEA it seemed to me a flawless and inspired gesture. The sophistication of the choices of the Porter songs and the aptness of them, always fitted the state of the piece’s play when they occurred and enhanced and underlined the moments and statements with clarity and wit. The relative familiarity, for me, of the Porter in contrast to the Monteverdi (I had heard it and seen it but don’t really know it) helped me to relax and anticipate with an educating hand by Mr Kosky, using the Porter, to where I was emotionally and intellectually in his production’s journey. I felt comfortably “Clever” and such security did I have, that my objective brain was seduced into a deepening subjective state of delicate humanity and many times I was moved to cathartic tears. The amazing beauty of every theatrical element of the finale of Act One, capped by the still stage and then the very slowly descending curtain, held me in a wet faced thrall. The final music and vision of the final Act Two duet between Poppea and Nero was so transcendently breathtaking that it took me some moments to recover to applaud the performers.

Whatever the ‘sad’ but world-wise observations of mankind the work makes, the power of Amor, more than, momentarily, trumps it. The power of the Beauty of Art in Mr Kosky’s vision is both alarming and comforting, on removed time and place reflection. It is attractive and repulsive at the same time and is therefore powerfully fascinating.

The whole of this work from the Design: Set and Lighting, Michael Zerz; the Costume Design, Alfred Mayerhofer and the Director and Musical Directorship, Barrie Kosky (not only playing piano but percussion as well; bongo drums!!) is as one. From the anticipatory energy of Mr Kosky and his musicians; Aisha Buka, Linde Gansch, Jorg Ulrich Krah (celli), in the orchestra pit waiting to begin, to the first deeply emotive “noise” from the instruments, to the last sound and light and curtain cue, all is managed for the best affect.

Mr Kosky talks about the group of actors he had gathered around himself at the Vienna Schauspielhaus: “They could all act, sing and dance. My sort of actors.” The performers: Barbara Spitz (Amor), Martin Niedermair (Ottone), Melita Jurisic (Poppea), Kyrre Kvam (Nero), Beatrice Frey (Ottavia), Florian Carove (Seneca), Ruth Brauer- Kvam (Drusilla) have technical skills and a confidence-depth of expression that are inspiring to observe. The accuracy and crazy bravura in the action of the “acting” is startling to take in. The courage, daring and yet professional control is a wonder to perceive and receive. The joint visions are whole and exhilarating.

What I came to appreciate as I watched the performance and later cogitated over, was the reason Barrie Kosky wanted to bring this work to Sydney and why it was important to him. It seemed to me that these artists were equal and able to interpret and DO what Mr Kosky asked, naturally. The difference between his Australian work and this work, is maybe in the cultural differences in the mode of expression of the actors. I felt that the diverse imagery and wild discoveries of expression on this stage were coming from a deeply embedded internal life. They understood the style of expression. It is the way these actors naturally respond. So the bloody imagery, the sexual aggressions, the near nudity, the usual affronting gestures of the Kosky Oeuvre, and which began to bore me in THE WOMEN OF TROY, had a an authenticity and believability – a necessity, not a decorative or petulant "in-yer –face" statement. It appeared as an internal need and habit. Whereas, in my remembered experience of most of the Australian actors, is that they seem to wear the demands of Mr Kosky’s productions like an external costume. (Not all.) It is not a natural mode of expression for them, it is learnt, it is an acquired one and sometimes, for me, appears to be a style that is externalised like a costume or even parodied, sometimes appearing to be like a caricature, certainly not owned or authentic, as it appeared to me with this company. What this company has, was a "European" sensibility. Whether it is cultural or training or experience is of interest to tease out further.

POPPEA was made in 2003. So in Sydney- Australian cultural terms it came before THE LAST ECHO (2007),THE WOMEN OF TROY (2008) and THE TELL TALE HEART (2009). In my view POPPEA is the greatest of these works and experiences. It is also the oldest. Along with NO DICE, at the Sydney Festival, and WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING, POPPEA has to be on the list of my favourite theatre experiences so far of 2009. Fate was Very, very good to me.

For more information click here.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Rameau Project

Performance Space at CarriageWorks present THE RAMEAU PROJECT by The Opera Project in Track 8.

Before entering the performance space, Track 8, Nigel Kellaway greeted us and stood on a chair and explained some of the process for that evening’s performance. Mr Kellaway spoke of his discovery at the age of 20 of Rameau and the new Baroque experience he had had, as distinct from Vivaldi, Bach etc for him. He spoke of a long five year investigation of this project, resolving into tonight’s presentation. He spoke of his long rewarding practice with his regular artist cohort, Regina Heilmann, on this project and then explained that Ms Heilmann had to withdraw from performance for personal needs in Hobart, and that at very short notice Ms Nikki Heywood would be “reading” after a week rehearsal the other principal role for the showing. He suggested that however Rameau survived tonight we could “blame” him.

We then entered a black draped space to seating placed in the round. Not all of us had seats. Some stood, others sat on the floor (it was approximately 90 minutes long – or a life time, depending on disposition.) An orchestra of five musicians: Violins: Heloise Pyne, Katrina Papallo; Cello: Catherine Upex, Steve Meyer; Double Bass: Ashley Kurrie; led, it seemed, by the pianist Michael Bell arrived with the soloist Annette Tesoriero. Ms Tesoriero’s wit, precision, joy and bright edged skills glistened with inviting communication under her spotlight (Lighting, Simon Wise.) When other participants contributions paled, which was often, it was a safe harbour to reflect on her presence with the senses of sound or sight or both. In the program there are 17 pieces of music acknowledged – Mr Kellaway claims, in large dark inked print, that they are “ALL RE–IMAGINED BY NIGEL KELLAWAY”. He claims that he is the “Composer” of this long work “(after several French Masters)” –besides Rameau, Marais, Legrand, Couperin, and Brassens/Aragon – but being no expert in this field I was not sure whether it was Arranging rather than Composing he ought to have claimed. Any guidance?

Again, Mr Kellaway has written this piece “in collaboration with the performers referencing texts by Brian Fuata (2006), Jean Genet [Les Bonnes, [otherwise The Maids] 2nd version 1954] and Elfriede Jelinek [Das klaverspielerin, otherwise The Piano Teacher 1983].” But my experience of the piece was dominated by the Genet THE MAIDS references. Other “lame” jokes using Cate Blanchett as a character as the silent partner in several telephone conversations, that ends in Mr Kellaway discussing a possible Sydney Festival entry with “budget” in 2011, and improvised conversations (thankfully briefly) with the audience were perhaps “written” (and should have been edited, perhaps, out). A brief reference to the famous “cutting” episode in The Piano Teacher is the only other writing that I recognised. In fact my impression of the text was a truncated version of THE MAIDS (not truncated enough, in this case) against the genius composition of Rameau. THE RAMEAU PROJECT could just as easily, and more truthfully be called THE RAMEAU AND GENET PROJECT.

Ms Heywood, gave a gallant and tidy reading of her role, all the more admirable because of the brevity of rehearsal. Ms Heywood, per force, read the role. Mr Kellaway, though, also read chunks of his performance as well. Perhaps Writing, Composing, Directing and Playing the leading role may have been too taxing on his time to complete that task.

The major problem for me in this performance was the dominating presence of Mr Kellaway’s personality/ego. At no time did I feel that I was observing anybody but Mr Kellaway. The adoptive or habitual physical habits, with very mannered muscular displays about he articulators: pursed lips, licking, darting tongue etc, were so over used that the eye of a director would, possibly, have been a guiding hand to suggest “that less is best.” It was sometimes excruciating to stay focused on his contribution. In fact, other than appreciating the presence of the Orchestra and Ms Tesoorieo, the floor of this venue has not had more scrutiny from me, ever, and, certainly, my observations of the other audience members, ,seated conveniently in the round, of one especially, who was either texting or twittering on his mobile during the performance, provided amusing distraction enough, to help me to stop from calling out “ENOUGH!!!!!!!”. Recently, at the Avignon Festival, audience, attending a particular performance, stood, after one such protest and evolved a revolution of real spontaneous performance art of argumentative debate of pros and cons. If only I had had the courage. And would we have replicated the passions of that audience in France? Probably not.

The artistic statement in 2009, of having the actor impersonate a female character, firstly in a grey man’s suit, then in the top half of the suit with the legs denuded of pants and shoes and socks, to be re-placed with jewel encrusted high heels, to be ultimately replaced by a long, red, off the shoulder, see through ‘number’ (that is dress) with the actor in bare, balletically pointed feet, trailing a long black chiffon scarf or shawl behind him across the floor, was painfully redolent of memories that one has, of “Queer” Performance Art of the 1970’s. This vogue of female impersonation of Genet’s play by men was once a fearful expectation of those times past. What it did for me on Friday night was make me observe how much time and politics have moved on in terms of artistic expression. Last year the Pacitti Company from London were guests of the Performance Space for their LIVEWORKS program and presented two pieces CIVIL and FINALE. In the notes to the CIVIL performance, this piece about Quentin Crisp, told us that the work was 12 years old and that “the past decade has brought about a great number of changes not least in the development of performance’, political concerns and technologies….” Mr Kellaway should note that in the past DECADES, even here in Australia, that there has been a keen development of performance and political concerns. (Just a visit to the Performance Space sponsored QUICK AND DIRTY program in February, would have clued him up). Certainly attending Barrie Kosky’s POPPEA, or any knowledge of Mr Kosky’s work in the past few years, would have also given pause and hopefully inspiration in what to spend the last five years and Australia Council of the Arts, Arts NSW money and the Department of Performance Studies, University of Sydney facilities on.

Thank God for Rameau this evening. Thank God for that Orchestra and Ms Tesoriero. Huh.

For more information click here.

Once and For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen

Sydney Theatre Company presents Ontroerend Goed, Kopergietery & Richard Jordan Productions Ltd ONCE AND FOR ALL WE’RE GONNA TELL YOU WHO WE ARE SO SHUT UP AND LISTEN at Wharf 2.

13 Flemish teenagers, 4 young men and 9 young women, aged between 14 and 18, are the performers in this hour long theatre piece demonstrating, after investigating, in a long process of devising, the alarming volcanic hormonal brew of the grey and the growing white neurons in the growing brain and the spectacular consequences of such a volatile mixture of interaction in the physical and psychic gestation period called adolescence.

Adolescent: in the process of developing from a child into an adult. (Neuron encasement takes place!!!)

It is the wonderful theatrical contrast of these obviously robust adolescents, in different phases of the trauma of the body and mind change, who having explored various episodes of behaviour under the guidance, at least supervision, of an adult team, particularly the director, Alexander Devriendt, who have now surrendered those dangerous urges for a very structured piece, in which they manage to recreate an abandon that looks chaotically spontaneous and, yet, has such craft and art structure.

When we enter the auditorium there is a cacophony of noise that immediately awakens those memories of the school playground. The rough-house, haunting, slightly terrifying cries of the unbridled and self encouraging and kindling nightmare conditions of the provoking teenager, echo in stereo across the stage from the black draped wings. The call, the warning of the primitive edge of anarchy ripples and the predicted horror of William Goldman’s THE LORD OF THE FLIES dominates the atmosphere. Depending on your own adolescent journey you can respond in recoiling horror or laugh fondly at a time that is now relievedly in the past. (In the past, TENSE.)

It is literally a black space that we see with a mixture of 13 non-descript, but individual, chairs lined up across the centre of the stage – each a different colour, shape, design, comfort factor etc. Like the 13 ‘adolescents’ each chair has its own distinct personality. One of the company comes on stage, steps over the front lighting equipment, seemingly flirts with us and then introduces the project we are about to see. She steps back into the “playing area” and is joined by the rest of the company all accurately and realistically dressed (Costume and Set Design: Sophie De Somere.) (This technique/pattern of the contrast between the individual conversation with the audience and the step back in to the company explosion is the repeated directorial motif.) They sit on their chairs and interact in the manner of each personality and at the same time begin to interact with each other. Teasing, flirting, jeering, annoying, swatting, hitting, laughing, feeling each other, flicking deflated rubber balloons at each other, tumbling over in their chairs with screaming laughter and feigned terror, multi-coloured chalking of the floor with catch phrases and drawings, entangling each other in string and taunting each other with sexual innuendo, stripping off a pair of panties and hanging them on the string, spitting water over each other, playing with plastic cups, building a pyramid out of them, having it destroyed by a swift kick from another of the “tribe”, a skate boarder crashing and hurtling over a group of crouched friends, two others in a tube of a double ended black plastic bag: crawling in and probably kissing, their legs sticking out the end, registering possible joy or agony, etc, etc. From the order of the line up of chairs we descend into chaos, a kind of HELL!!!! (depending on your own memories) – physical and vocal NOISE!!! This is accompanied by a blindingly apt soundtrack of pop music (Sound Design: Stijn De Gezelle. Music across a range from Delibes’ LAKME through Radiohead etc- all terrifically chosen.) A warning horn, like that used in a penitentiary, maybe, blares out a pulsing signal and each of the group clear, clean the space and place the chairs back into the ordered row that we began with. The performers leave the stage. All is restored to quite and order, just the unique collection of individual chairs warmly lit in a contrasting blissful zone of peace. (Lighting Jereon Doise) Then the sequence is repeated, and here is the cleverness, but slightly differently, barely noticeably: it is spontaneous but ordered. The stage clears again. The third time it recommences with the actors giving the directorial, objective instruction. It has become art, carefully crafted. The young actors explicate this with a slightly indicated sense of sneer and cynicism at order being imposed on their actions and hi-jacked in this way. Order out of disorder. Adult supervision. But clearly, deep down they love what they are doing.

What follows are a number of sequences that examine, the abandon of the tribe to the heat of the beat of the music; the animal biological abandon of the power of burgeoning sexuality; to the ecstasy of altered states, of drugs; the grasping of the power of destruction; the gathering maturation of choice and its possible consequences: all the lessons of adolescence, of which most of us learn and survive into a civilised adulthood and others, a few, do not. This is a very real exploration of this period of some people’s lives (– not all, of course, my personal travail through this period was relatively sedate and hardly recognisable in this work and I could reflect, either, as our introductory host admitted, with recognition and a sense of regret of now being old or with envy.) The final sequence is a magnification of all the objects thus used so far, everything is on a bigger scale and the resultant mess is catastrophic and hardly able to be cleaned up swiftly-it has the affect of poignancy and caused pause about the events I had witnessed. A nostalgia for a time in my own experience when life was freer, more abandoned, perhaps, more fun. But then the company take a triumphant curtain call (my audience ALL stood to express their appreciation – a rarity in Sydney theatre going etiquette). The house lights restored. Then, immediately, this company returned to the stage and began the huge necessary restoration of order on the stage accompanied by the adult support team. For some in the audience this was continuation of the performance, certainly, it seemed to me to reflect the responsible maturity of these growing or grown adolescents guided by supporting adults – we are in this together. Like in the recent Shopfront production SUPERPERFECT I saw out in suburban Sydney, Carlton, I saw the empowering communication of the arts for the young in the community. It is also what I saw and felt out in Campbelltown with THE RIOT ACT earlier in the year.

The difference here, is a very tight and slick Festival Circuit event that has had a long gestation period and quite a number of performances. It was a very inspiring event. No less than the other two that I mentioned, just supported differently. At the Sydney Festival Ontroerend Goed presented THE SMILE OFF YOUR FACE- an interactive, and it, like this project, was an original and welcome experience to the Sydney Theatre calendar.

Playing now until 29 August.
For more information or to book click here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tour Four: Resonance

AUSTRALIAN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA. IBM Tour Four: RESONANCE. Masterpieces for String Orchestra.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra in their program RESONANCES presented five Masterpieces for String Orchestra. The concert was extremely felicitous. Beginning with a world premiere, commissioned to celebrate Richard Tognetti’s 20th Anniversary as leader of the ACO, was Peter Sculthorpe’s Chaconne. “The music is influenced by Bach.” The music was extremely beautiful and wonderfully captured in its long floating sounds by the players.

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis was the next choice. Written“ in 1910 a perceptive critic noted something of the same quality, saying that 'one is never quite sure whether one is listening something very old or very new’, Williams or Tallis? There is a large contingent of players, the “orchestra is divided into three – a string quartet, a tutti section and a small group of nine players that provides distant echo effects.” The opening chords of the piece are resonant with empathy, comforting emotional memories welled up, and whether it be the modal harmonies reminiscent of those school church choir days or not, the performance took me to a place of contemplative appreciation - a time of a spiritual life, less complicated than my present one - “glowing’, “radiant”, “harmony” all words to express my experience.

A long floor change and re-organisation of the orchestra for the Bela Bartok; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Bartok is a relatively recent composer to my ear. I was introduced to him by Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Orchestra. I can remember being struck by the syncopated use of percussion and being intrigued by the contrasting ‘noises’ from the orchestra and the pulsing forward adventure of the sounds. The use of the Celesta ,magical to the ears. ”… It traces a simple journey, via sound worlds of amazing variety, from instability to resonant concord… Bartok along with colleague Zoltan Kodaly was a pioneer in recording and notating….. folk musics of Eastern Europe….. he had intensively researched Bulgarian music…. The influence on his own work can’t be overstated, particularly in his use of irregular and compound rhythms…” The music has the surprising capacity to keep one alert and engaged in the composition. Bright, perky, unpredictable, “humanist” and “sophisticated”, other words to sum up the experience of listening.

After the interval came, Iannis Xenakis and his composition Shaar. This piece was commissioned for the 1983 Testimonium Festival in Jerusalem whose theme was ”From the revealed and from the Hidden”. The piece Shaar means ‘gate’. Xenakis., a young Greek resistance fighter qualified as an engineer and found employment working for the architect Le Corbusier “while studying composition with Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Schaeffer.” His work was in an urgent reply to the barbarism of the ‘war’ culture of mankind. The piece begins with “wave –like melodies woven out of rapid, sweeping glissandos and create fleeting moments of richly resonant stability.” So powerful are the musical-sound statements that I responded with the laughter of surprised provocation. It presented a contemporary expression of string orchestration that was thrilling in its dare. The subsequent patterns of sound held the concentration with a kind of perverted fascination for me. It was a very refreshing experience- a true “Masterpiece”. Xenakis ,himself reminds us that ‘in my music there is all the agony of my youth, of the Resistance, and the aesthetic problems they posed, with the street demonstrations, or even more the occasional, mysterious , deathly sounds of those cold nights in December 1944 in Athens’ – a time of deadly resistance to the Nazi’s and then British – who tried to impose the Greek monarchy on the people in the wake of the Nazi retreat. This febrile sense of life being expressed in the music is palpable and thrilling in its affect. The engineer and architect is redolent in the composer’s sound construction.

In contrast the majesty of Richard Strauss’: Metamorphosen for 23 strings has all the deeply felt torture of a war culture in Germany that caused the creating of a music piece, that according to Michael Kennedy was ‘an emotional catharsis, a confession and an atonement’ for the composer, written in the closing period of World War II, in 1945. Inspired by poetry of Goethe which suggested that ‘ no-one can know himself….. yet must daily put to the test who he is and what he was, what he can and what he may be”. There is deep feeling expressed here and the momentous time spaces and harmonies envelop one into a place of stillness and a kind of grief. Knowing that this composition was near the end of his compositional time, I longed for the glories of the transcendent sounds of THE FOUR LAST SONGS. Alas, not to be reached, but still affecting in its playing by the ACO.

This was again a very expertly selected program and rewarding to hear. Life is well spent with Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and in this concert by many other guest artists.

Playing again 19 August, 7pm, City Recital Hall.
For more information or to book click here.


SUPERPERFECT. An international collaboration between Shopfront, Nibroll (Yokohama, Japan) & Keio SFC University (Fujisawa, Japan) at the Shopfront Theatre, Carlton, Sydney.

Shopfront has been a theatre organisation out in south-east Sydney, Carlton for a very long time. It works with young performers from very wide ranging backgrounds from the community. In the Shopfront Annual Report for 2008 there is an encouraging and amazing breadth of work that this company covered in that year. The major work was a site specific work in the shopping street/area of Hurstville called (lost toy story). (The photographs of the event look quite fun.) As well there was a project called ARTSLAB08 which “supports young and emerging artists as they realise their artistic project with Shopfront resources, support and networks.” There were Materclasses which that year hosted the physical theatre company Zen Zen Zo. RAW another series of workshops developing “short , sharp and bold!” projects under the guidance of professional mentors. A very comprehensive range of Community Projects are also listed. It’s a very impressive record of commitment. The premises have been spruced up and are very impressive as well. An enviable, versatile performance space plus other rooms for gallery/installation and dressing rooms etc. Under the guidance of Artistic Director/CEO: TJ Eckleberg and General Manager: Nerida Woods, their Staff and Board have quietly persisted and pursued work that is the essential foundation of the arts in this city. I have known about the company, but, shamefully, this was my first ever visit. I was invited and pursued and so went. The feel of the vibe was that of a youthful but just as sophisticated PERFORMANCE SPACE cutting edge.

SUPERPERFECT is a collaboration. The director of this project, TJ Eckleberg, in his program note, goes on to say “Superperfect is the culmination of over two years of scheming, plotting, planning, and dreaming – with very different organisations – an Australian multi- disciplinary contemporary arts centre for young people, a Japanese contemporary performance company and a Japanese university-along with youth services and organisations in the wider Sydney Metropolitan area…”

On arrival at the Shopfront venue there are a number installation works of varying interest on exhibition scattered about the foyer and in adjacent rooms. All the works have a youthful vibrancy and cheek. They all have a prominent sense of serious intent and accomplishment.

The performance takes place in a converted factory space, a long rectangular space. On entering we, first, are invited by the performers to write, simply on yellow Self-Stick note our wishes/dreams, which are then glued to the back wall. The performers then guide us to seating that has been organised in a traverse fashion – down to the two long sides. The main Set feature (Kate Davis) is a square wire pen of about hip height with four central gates. High above the stage area on a metal frame are suspended on wires at the entrance end of the space, spools of multi coloured ribbons and other materials across the width of the area. (Later they are unspooled for dramatic effect.) At both ends of the space there are octagonal screens on which video images of some of the performers in interview and a very varied set of collaged images, such as deer, birds patterns etc, are projected. (Another camera projected images onto the floor as well) (Visual Artists: Keisuke Takashi (NIBROLL) and David Kirkpatrick.) Lighting is by Stephen Hawker and is very useful and effective. The work is mostly a 55 minute choreographed exercise of teenage/youthful longings and needs; their wishes and dreams. The Movement/dance is the dominating feature although text is interpolated throughout. The words are either spoken through a micro-phone or delivered personally to the audience. This is the weakness of the piece at the moment, as the spoken words are not always clearly delivered to the audience, it is often blurred in under enunciated sounds and/or drowned in competition with the Sound design (Meem and Skank (NIBROLL). The music is always provocative and stimulating but not always in harmony with the communication of the text which appears to be spoken with a sense of ownership and urgency by the performers. The impressive work is the disciplined and committed physical work/choreography (Mikuni Yanaihara (NIBROLL; assisted by movement artists Victoria Hunt & Bronwyn Turnbull). In a large group of 21 artists and in sections of smaller combinations the physical execution and variety of expression has real impact. Along with props (a vast collection of clothing and photographic headshots of some of the artists for instance) the images are created and sustained with confidence, commitment and a sense of intellectual integrity. This is the greatest impression from the event – the sense of communal achievement in the enterprise of creative collaboration and discipline. The sense that the wide variety of backgrounds in the Australian contingent of the artists and the integration of the guests from Japan and their point of view have been each given respect and the breadth to be expressed and infused into a piece that speaks of the universality of being young no matter what the cultural background. Combined with the magically dreadful poetic expression of despair presented out at the Campbell Arts Centre not long ago: THE RIOT ACT, this work and the organisation Shopfront give pause to consider the importance of this kind of outreach/arts organisation in any community.

After the performance ,whilst waiting for friends to get a lift back to the city, I met several of the young performers. The level of confidence was self evident. One of the participants, recently arrived from Africa and only a member of the group since the end of May was apparently inspired with real confidence and a glowing sense of dignified self identity from this work and his participation in it. He has found a means to belong and yet be individually responsible for telling his story of immigration and integration into the society of Australia. What more could one ask of the arts. Self worth and a sense of direction. This performance was more than that. It had also artistic merit . Some of the company is travelling to Japan for performances later in the month. It is this international exchange that develops an important aspect of mutual cultural respect. The Lingalayan Dance Company and their collaboration with the Malayasian, Sutra Dance Company and their work RASA UNMASKED gave me that same sense of the value of the arts as a civilizing force to mutual understanding of nations. Shopfront has achieved much with this enterprise. Congratulations and the Arts Funding Bodies should take real pride and note well the worth of their support. More of it.

For more information click here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Saturn's Return

Photo: Toby Moore & Leeanna Walsman - Saturn's Return

Sydney Theatre Company present SATURN’S RETURN by Tommy Murphy at The Wharf 1.

SATURN’S RETURN was originally commissioned and first produced by Sydney Theatre Company for its Wharf 2LOUD program. The first performance of the original season took place in August 2008. A year in development since then. Mr Murphy has had a year which has included the play being “workshopped and performed in a rehearsed reading at the National Studio (London)… and a secondment at the Royal Court…… I benefited from stepping away from the play to gain some objectivity over its shortcomings but also its inherent mechanisms. I knitted new links between the scenes and threw out the old ending.” In fact quite a considerable amount of re-writing has gone on and it appears to me almost a different play. A better play.

The journey of the protagonist of Zara (Leeanna Walsman), from the moment of her hesitation over her commitment to “I love you” in reply to Matt’s (Toby Moore) declaration “I love you” in the first scene, is now the clear development of the play. This is Zara’s play now, not a shared one with Matt. Matt, as a character, becomes part of the mechanism with Brendan for Zara’s story – not a joint focus.

In the midst of her astrological time zone of "Saturn’s return" (her 29th year), confronted with her free wheeling hedonistic life experiences and a need to commit to a LIFE plan, maybe children, at Matt’s urging, Zara is spun into a mind/space trip. This new play now takes us into a warped mind journey of personal issues all impersonated on the stage. The play is Zara’s mental struggle through her decision making angst. The audience is whisked into a series of episodes that become more and more “demented”. Events, people and pop–life backgrounds are thrown into the mixmaster as the Set (Adam Gardnir) – in construction, looking as flimsy, as the early series of DOCTOR WHO - spins like a whirling disc/capsule through the super-hyped confrontation of life/space needs, accessorised with the clumsy early 'Doctor Who' flashing of primitive lighting effects (Luiz Pampolha) including the star /universe on obvious black masking. In the program notes the Director (David Berthold) quotes the writer Douglas Adams and I think "…ahhhh, THE HITCH-HIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY....... AHHHHH, I get it. The space man costume, looking like a kid’s home made kit; the invisible gravity boots etc. AHHH, yes! DOCTOR WHO. RED DWARF etc."

Mr Murphy has still the glittering surface of our cultural ‘branding’ issues: yoga, drugs, sex, alcohol, cancer, dementia, soundproofing, home deposit/mortgage etc and peppers them minutely but accurately, humorously, into the speedy, stylistically comic repartee that were a feature of the last version of the text, but this time with a much clearer structural vision. The play is now less sociological (Not so much the Gen “Y” comment), more psychological ( more personal). (It is a different play.) The pity is that in between the last production and this one, THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISSOCIA, has also appeared on this very stage. It too evolved from a young woman having to deal with her need to confront her relationship with her partner, it too threw her into a mental space of absurdity. We are on very similar territory. What this play does not have is the reality of depression. It is only half the world of dissocia. Of course in this play we have a healthy young woman who, no matter the stress of the decision, can ultimately make it and, seemingly, will move on.

Not only has there been re-writing but also re-casting in this new exploration. Matt Zeremes who last time created the husband, Matt, now tackles the friend, Brendan. Mr Zeremes seems to be more comfortable with the tasks and subsequently more successful. In the husband role, Toby Moore takes over, afresh. There is great technique, especially comic, but there is a tendency for the characterisation to be glib, lacking real depth. But, then, this was my response last time to the casting in this role (Mr Zeremes, as Matt).

Ms Walsman is still playing Zara/Mary. Ms Walsman makes a fairly successful Mary. My observation is that the disguise and dialect of the Dutch whore, Mary, provides a mask for Ms Walsman to relax and express a wider range of responses in her story telling kit. Zara, the principal role is not as successful. It seemed that the playing of Zara without costume or dialect masks was a much more difficult task to execute for her. Playing so close to herself, maybe, creates, unconsciously, an inhibition, in the theatre? The scale of expression in a vital need to reveal, that any truthful acting demands, maybe too daunting? It is, certainly, less believable. The vocal work is forced, breathy and repetitive in its sound. The characterisation lacks physical detail and freedom and a kind of blandness begins to permeate the choices. It is television acting. (It is self concerned and the camera shall catch the detail with the right distancing or angles.) It has personable charm but the work does not accumulate substance. Each scene is ok but the picture as an accumulating journey less so. The dilemma of the character is as coolly ascertained at the beginning of the play as in the last minutes. There has not been a driven accumulating objective. Each scene is ‘Brechtian’ in its ‘presenting’ of character in a state of ‘crisis’ not actually in ‘crisis’. The performance is mismanaged in its affects of communication for the theatre. Part of Mr Moore’s problem maybe the lack of active give and take between him and his co-lead. Here, for me, is where the problem lies. Mr Berthold, although dramaturgically on top of the play does not seem to be able to guide his, twice, leading lady to a more satisfactory solution. And this is where the play flounders in its impact.

, at the Belvoir, has also had a second ‘bite of the cherry’- a second airing, with more or less a year for new development . The writing changes in that play were not as radical as Mr Murphy’s. In fact, the monologue riffs of Ruben still dominated the achievement of Mr Cowell. The scenes still fairly unsophisticated in their character and plot development. The jokes just as strong, balanced, precariously, with the seriousness of the issue of the play: alcoholism. Structurally and technique-wise nearer the David Williamson model than Mr Murphy’s play. (Mr Cowell nowhere near the sophistication of the complexity of the ‘musical’ structures underpinning Mr Williamsons achievements, yet) The Design was expanded and more handsome and with a keen and elegant set of solutions. The re-casting was certainly stronger than the original production Downstairs (in all but one instance). It was, however, blessed, both times, with a powerfully charismatic central performance by Toby Schmitz that carried any carpings one may have had, over the writing.

SATURN’S RETURN has had a very thorough re-development by Mr Murphy. It is a radical re-construction. The bravery of this, I believe pays off seriously well. Here is a very seriously concerned artist at work. Engaged and thoughtful. It is always difficult to fully gauge these changes (I feel, for instance, that the first published text of Sam Shepard’s BURIED CHILD is a much more interesting one than the re-examined published text of the Broadway version. The first version was more ambiguous. The second too obvious. [Imagine the difficulties when deciding on which edition of a Tennessee Williams play to use. He was so obsessed with improving his plays and then with the opportunity to adapt with freer censorship rules and acceptability, as productions were mounted over history that he never stopped fiddling , however incrementally. Which "STREETCAR" will we see?]) What has been gained, by Mr Murphy? What has been lost, by Mr Murphy? Debatable. The set design is more realistic, flimsy, less whimsical. The costumes present a less upwardly mobile citizenship in this version. The re-casting, maybe, has not got gone far enough. Debatable, again. Certainly, the central performance of Ms Walsman does not have the same force to be reckoned with as Mr Schmitz’s did in RUBEN GUTHRIE.

It would be interesting to see the next incarnations of either of these plays. Fresh eyes. Fresh inputs. A whole harnessing of new creativity. It is the maturing of the writing process that both Belvoir and The Sydney Theatre Company have taken responsibility for. This is truly nurturing the writer’s growth. More of it. It is a risk take but a laudable one in my estimation. POOR BOY could have benefited from that activity. (I hope the new editions of these two plays are published to put beside the originals, for history’s sake.)

Playing now until 30 August.
For more information or to book click here.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues)

Opera Australia presents at the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House: I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues). Opera in two acts by Vincenzo Bellini. Libretto by Felice Romani.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi by Bellini is a co-production with Opera North (UK) and Opera Ireland. The first thing to say is, for those of you, like myself, unfamiliar with the opera, “It’s not Shakespeare.” Based on other material prior to the Shakespeare play (Ovid etc), this story line is set in civil war between rival factions, the Capuleti and Montecchi, and like the more famous play’s story line, Giulietta Capueti (Emma Matthews) has fallen in love with Romeo Montecchi (Catherine Carby). Orpha Phelan, the Director notes “.....On the one hand it is about civil war, as experienced the world over; on the other, it shows how two people’s lives are doomed from the beginning, ruined by inherited conflict.” The details of the opera and more famous play are different but the general shape of the tragedy is much the same: The two love each other despite their opposing families; Giulietta is betrothed to another, Tebaldo (Henry Choo); there is a love scene in the bedroom between the two young ones; to escape her predicament she takes a drug to induce a sleep that looks like death; Romeo discovers her in the family tomb and slays himself, only for Giulietta on awakening in the tomb/vault to do the same to herself, broken hearted. The major difference is the civil war background.

Ms Phelan along with her Designer, Leslie Travers have set the place in a contemporary image of non-specifics. “It would have been all too easy to have given this production a (definite) time and place..... Afghanistan, Bosnia or Iraq..... St Petersburg, Chicago or Belfast.” (In fact because of the Irish background of the director and the use of the boy-soldier in the production (costume choices as well!!!) and knowing the Martin McDonagh plays (LIEUTENANT OF INNISHMORE and THE PILLOWMAN etc), Belfast and ‘the troubles’ kept resonating tragically as I watched the performance). The set in act one, a triangulated wooden floor of parquet, crumbling in the downstage edge. Flown pieces change the locations, beautifully assisted by delicate and intricate lighting (Chris Davey). In act two the static set is of the floor that has been blown apart and suspended in space, in time. Very symbolic. The costumes are modern dress. The direction, placement/staging of the singer/actors is very thoughtful and dramatically pleasing, mostly picture images, especially in the chorus scenes; non-naturalistic.

The Conductor is Richard Bonynge. Mr Bonygne’s career history to this form of music: the “bel canto” repertory, is probably the reason that we are seeing this opera in Sydney. The Opera is melodious (Verdi praised Bellini in particular as the composer of broad melodic curves) and has some pretty music (“…[Bellini’s music has a tendency] towards an ecstatic unfolding of sonorities……[and] it is above all in this ecstasy of sound that the Romanticism of Bellini’s music is grounded” ) but dramatically lacks the oomph, to my ear, to lift it into a first grade experience. Whether it is the passion of the music or it’s rendering here, or, whether it is the singers under playing the drama for vocal safety, it is a low voltage experience.

“Bellini’s music comes from the heart, and it is intimately bound up with the text”, says Wagner. “...(Bellini’s) opera, in common with Italian Opera in general between about 1815 and about 1850, present a sequence of scenes depicting particular emotions, not always psychologically connected. No regard was paid to whether a good or bad character was expressing these emotions: villains sing in the same beautiful cantabile style as the purer souls. A love-aria is a love-aria, no matter who sings it.” – pure bel canto the definition of which is quoted in the program notes by Judith Armstrong: “singing, that is one continuous melodic language of the emotions’”- (a POOR BOY connection for me.) The lack of character development/coding, maybe, is what throws the work out of balance to my ear. Maybe the singing, then, in this performance was too cautious? The recent Metropolitan Opera production screening of La Sonnambula was invigorating. NORMA and I puritani, I can recall, thrilling. Certainly, the Callas recordings make NORMA so. The Sutherland performances of NORMA in the Sydney Opera House were so as well.

This is a pleasant experience, but not a great night in the theatre. I relish the opportunity to see performances of a work that I have never seen before or I don’t know. If you have the same curiosity, do go.

Sources: The program Notes in Opera Australia; THE NEW GROVE DICTIONARY OF MUSIC AND MUSICIANS, edited by Stanley Sadie. MACMILLAN PUBLISHERS LIMITED, 1980.

Playing now until September 9.
For more information or to book click here.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Dealing With Clair

Photo: Laura Brent - Dealing With Clair

mt productions and Griffin Independent present DEALING WITH CLAIR by Martin Crimp.

DEALING WITH CLAIR is a very early Martin Crimp (1988) and it is interesting to see alongside the STC production of the more recent Crimp play THE CITY (2008). Whether it be the “auteur” tendencies of Benedict Andrews or nor, or, if it is just the development of the writer’s styles (and aesthetic interests) over time, I found Cristabel Sved’s Direction of DEALING WITH CLAIR very engrossing and clear in the service of the playwright. This work set out to solve the writer’s intentions as writ without an overlay of the director’s aesthetic explorations obfuscating the substance of the play.

Ms Sved had an authoritative and intense creative grip on her intentions from the first moment that I, as an audience, engaged with the offers. The Set (William Bobbie Stewart) that is present on entry to the space, Lighting (Verity Hampson) and the Music-Sound design (Steve Toulmin) are immensely intriguing and provocative. Things to deal with. What follows when the play commences are introductions and then expansions of characters that Ms Sved with the actors have carefully considered, textually, and delightfully, physically. The vocal energies and sounds seem to have been orchestrated like a beautiful chamber orchestra of six. The physical work, individually characterised and collectively organised are detailed in their “choreography” so that every gesture and pattern, on this small stage, resonates with possible meaning. The Costume Design (again, William Bobbie Stewart) in all of the scenes is so finely calibrated and detailed in the journey of the characters that much pleasure can be gained from just deciphering those directorial/design offers. Much to deal with. Here is a Director that with all of her artists explored patiently and creatively the possibility of how each moment on stage is useful in keeping the narrative and its social observations always moving forward. It can be quite an intellectual workout. It was also a jolly good narrative. A thriller of money intrigues, sexual longings and possibly murder.

Martin Crimp’s play has some of the learnt knowledge of maybe a close study of Harold Pinter. The plot and the characters have all the skilful menace and wit of the best of Pinter, structure is meticulous. The wit is subtle and subversive. The characters are so true to real life that the middle class greed and sexual urges, lustiness of both needs, revealed in this production, is frighteningly easy to recognise as traits of our very own behaviour. The play uses the world of real estate, with all of the games of dealing, money and sex, to ensnare us into the witty critique of a world that we have allowed to blur our own moral principles to get more. To paraphrase: What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and yet lose his own soul? This is a question that comes to mind while watching this work. It is even more pregnant in the wake of the present economic catastrophe, and particularly ominous as you feel the “monster” economics of old slowly reviving – the stock markets rekindling as my evening news bulletin told me when I got home. A play that despite its age is still relevant today (as all good plays are).

What Ms Sved has added in her direction of the text of this play is also a visual delight in the masterly footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock. Ms Sved with all her designers leads us to intriguing clue to clue, to underline the writer’s intentions. The subliminals smartly screwing up the tensions of the evening. The change of clothing of each character is telling in each scene. It is like all good design however, subtle. The Sound design by Steve Toulmin, the choice of sounds and the volume levels, seemed to me, carefully executed. The lighting by Verity Hampson, for example the noir usage of the spin of the blades of the ceiling fan and it’s vertiginous effect as the play moves to its off stage denouement, clever. The metaphorical cheek and trick of the set is arresting as well (– maybe over the top?!!!)

Ms Sved has spent time working with the actors on the minutiae of the psychological gestures of the character. The shifting/lifting/splitting of the shirt revealing the vulnerable lower stomach and back of Mike (Ed Wightman) as he drunkenly sprawls on the plastic covered black leather divan, accompanied by his scratching/rubbing/stroking of it with his “paws”, bubbling with alcohol and boiling with sexual yearnings for his wife/nanny/or house dealer is outrageous in its display and true to character. And all of the actors/characters have similar gestural clues that are revealing of the stages of their storytelling. The arrangements of stage patterns for the scene changes choreographed for juxtapositional psychological re-enforcements. This is very densely loved work. The joy of creative invention at the service of the writer.

Laura Brent (Claire) begins the play with an enormously difficult one-sided telephone call. The vocal energy and the detailed listenings (to the imagined conversation) are physically charged. The use of levels: floor crouch, seated, standing etc judged exquisitely for propelling our interest into the information of the text. The following scene is electric in the dynamic focused energies of Ed Wightman (Mike) and the rapport between Ms Brent and Mr Wightman very exhilarating. Mr Wightman gives a very brilliantly sustained performance over the whole of the play. Sarah Becker (Liz) is detailed in the work, (maybe just a trifle pushed on occasions – drawing attention to the work rather than let it be endowed by the audience.) Boris Brkic (James) is intriguingly contrapuntal in energy to the other life forces on the stage, and the sinister pointillist detailing of his portrait of a very sinister "gentleman" is a little unnerving in its gathering details. His character, a dealer in pictures and the intimation of the "vanishing point" in his conversations add to a sinister suspicion that is Hitchcockian in this productions revelations. Kelly Paterniti (Anna) in a small role as a sexually simmering Italian "nanny" adds to the heated glues of the sticky stains of these people. Josh McConville acquits himself well in three cameos. His Toby especially ripe.

This is a very good night at the theatre. Not always feeling as sure as it could be, but the parts are worth savouring, even if the whole is not completely cooked. Well worth seeing. And as dinner conversation the contrast and comment between the experience of THE CITY and DEALING WITH CLAIR is well worth having.

Playing now until 15 August.
For more information or to book click here.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Thom Pain (based on nothing)

Arts Radar in association with B Sharp presents THOM PAIN (based on nothing) by Will Eno at the Downstairs Theatre at Belvoir Theatre.

For Thom Pain, I read, initially Tom Paine. Tom (Thomas) Paine (1737-1809) agitator, activist involved in The American War of Independence and The French Revolution wrote among other things THE RIGHTS OF MAN (1791-92) and THE RIGHTS OF MAN, Part Two (1794). After falling foul of Robespierre, in France, he was rescued and returned to the USA in 1802, where he was ostracized as an atheist and free thinker and died (1809), alone and in poverty. His fame lay not in his originality of thought but in his passion and directness.

This ‘Thom Pain’ of the American writer Will Eno is a long monologal (80 minutes) reflection by a contemporary, young existentialist-man, maybe an Everyman trying to make sense of his world in 2004. (This was the year of the first performances of the play.) This Thom Pain is, appositionally, full of languor and indirectness, laid back and self-deprecating, but still gives the impression of a free thinker, mind you, a stream of consciousness thinker, spilling self-consciously the impulse of his living but vital thoughts, and, in its own way is just as agitating in its activism and aspiring desperation, not, like his name sake, to die “alone or in poverty”. He is looking for the rights of his everyman fellowman and looks to validate his own unexceptional hurts and foibles in the commonality of all our familiar, mirroring hurts and foibles.

Mr Eno from Brooklyn, discovered the theatre late in his life (at 28) and with the encouragement of the Edward F. Albee Foundation for writers (and others), escaped his real job occupation of stock broker and began to ruminate and write. It seems to me, and I contemplated this as I watched, that this work is coming from someone who has had a reality check. And I guess if you worked on Wall Street down near The World Trade Center buildings in the early part of this century you would have an existing experience to cauterise you into this place of Who am I? Where am I? Why am I? What am I for? etc rumination. This Thom Pain is an ordinary guy and is finding his ordinariness a discovery and a treasure and a curiosity. The stories that he tells us of his electrocuted dog, his bee stings, his romantic attachments and detachments, amongst much else, are just nothings really. Nothings like everyone else’s. To quote from the play: "We’re on planet Earth, a planet in a solar system, one of a trillion solar systems in our galaxy, which is one of a billion galaxies in the Universe. And you think you’re pretty special. Math. There’s a lot of zeroes out there. What can one man do?...... Nothing, really. Or I don’t know." Thom, like you and I, is fairly insignificant and yet, since Thom can contemplate his life so endlessly to us, contemplate his metaphoric navel and to get us into a space - a theatre and tell us about it, maybe he will have meaning. And if we buy it, meaning for us as well. "What can one man do?... Nothing really. Or I don’t know."

Sam Strong has created with his Designer (Claude Marcos) an elegant black space-a set of smooth black flats, a clean black floor with a simple high gloss black chair, warmly lit. With his Lighting Designer (Danny Pettingill) Mr Strong moves our focus around the space to give us changing visual perspectives to keep us visually stimulated, accompanied by a very spare and atmospheric piano score - to gently lull and attend to our concentration, in case it defocuses (Kelly Ryall). The play begins in an absolute blackness and after a pause a match is lit as if to light a cigarette and we see the flash image of Thom (Luke Mullins). “It is snuffed out” says Mr Eno. Thom speaks in the dark; “How wonderful to see you all.” A second match is lit and the same happens. “I should quit.” There is a pause and then in the blackness we receive a definition of the word FEAR. Later, of FELICIFIC: "causing or intending to cause happiness." Depending on your sensibility on the day, the performance you attend, this exercise in the theatre could have you leave the space happy. OR. You could also leave, unhappy.

The character of Thom talks to us, interacts with us, but never gives us time to respond - not daring too. I guess, it might deflect Mr Eno’s Thom from his journey. (Two other, uncredited characters are in the play, and their theatrical presence imposed by the writer felt oddly manipulative and false. It took me sometime to trust Thom Pain and these other “pretend your audience for the audience” cut my belief from under my metaphoric feet. I don’t know whether I do or did ever get to trust Thom or Mr Eno. My intellect does but my theatrical belief does not.) The theatrical problem of seeming to engage us and yet not is another of the flaws of my participation in the writing. I felt I had to surrender to the string pulling, like a yo yo, spun away, retracted back, of Mr Eno’s artifice and accept the characters ground rule needs of pretending to invite connection and yet holding us apart as a theatre audience. You and I, never really, we. There is a kind of aloofness and condescension in the character. Last year in a B Sharp phenomenon, AN OAK TREE, I felt a similar invitation to enter an exploration of MAGIC, IMAGINATION and FEAR - key words in this play - and I delightfully did, but the magic and imagination is all prescribed here, pre-structured. AN OAK TREE was a free fall. There was no reason to fear. This play may be just too neat. Post-modernist chic.

Luke Mullins dressed in a plain, dark suit, white shirt, dark tie, no socks begins the first page of the text in the dark. All we have is his voice. Mr Mullin’s voice has an arresting timbre and note range. What it didn’t have was articulatory definition. This may have been, partly, a lack of accurate imagery. No careful, clear, breathed image, no accuracy in articulation, especially in the dark. I found it difficult to hear and observe. I could not see with my ears what Mr Mullins was saying. I was lost very early in the experience. When the lighting state allows us to see as well, there is a playfulness in the vocal expression but it seems to be attached intellectually - ideas, and later an actorly set of feelings, but rarely a sense of authentic, in the moment feeling. The truth of the verbal articulations were intellectually imposed and not coming from the mix of both – the head and the heart. Mr Mullins is physically very fluid and has charm. It is the passion that Mr Mullins and Mr Strong have for the play and the role of THOM PAIN, that tended to dominate the performance that I saw, not the living, breathing passionate Thom Pain. There was no real pain just a theatrical one. Reading the London reviews the performance by the actor, there, seems to have been astonishing and was at least an equal to the writer for this play’s success. Some critics recall Samuel Beckett in talking of it. Although this is a good performance it is not “very” good and this play although an intellectual stimulating tease, it is not near Mr Beckett’ profundity.

When one reflects back to the monologal experience, one need only go back to Gillian Jones in HOMEBODY/KABUL or Robyn Nevin in THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING to recall the need for the great experience of the actor’s instrument to bring it to sustained life. Detailed technical bravado and detailed imaginative accuracy. TALKING HEADS at The Sydney Theatre (not to pass over the TV experience) is another example that just flashed back to memory: Maggie Smith, a miracle of technical and imagery articulation. Mr Mullins gives a very creditable performance and he certainly accumulates a passionate performance as the play comes to its end but I trust it might be better in a few more years with more challenges and intense skills under his belt.

I am ambivalent about this experience and I do believe it will come down to personal taste and mood on the night for you to be: Happy or Unhappy. I feel much the same as one of the London critics of the SOHO Theatre performance “This is thus a quintessentially theatrical performance, but one that could unravel were a heckler in the audience to take up the challenges seemingly on offer but subtly withdrawn” John Thaxter.

P.S. I find it a little worrying that Sam Strong who, in his very copious professional resume, tells us of his very close connection to writers and is the Literary Associate, as a dramaturg, at Company B, has not thought to put any notes about the writer WILL ENO and his career in the program. To forget the writer is to exclude the original source of all this further creative effort. An acknowledgment and history is useful for some of the audience. And may maintain and direct a further interest in the writer.

Playing now until 16 August.
For more information or to book click here.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents Battleship Potemkin

Photo: Frank Strobel

Sydney Symphony Orchestra. 2009 Season. KALEIDOSCOPE PRESENTED BY St. George; BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra presented the film BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, Directed by Sergei Eisenstein (1925). With a new score arranged by Frank Strobel from music by Shostakovitch, in an Australian premiere. It is the FILMPHILHARMONIC EDITION. Film courtesy of Stiftung Deutsche Kinematek Berlin. Music courtesy of Sikorski Musikverlage.

Sergei Eisenstein made BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN in 1925 and later ALEXANDER NEVSKY (1938) and the IVAN THE TERRIBLE, Parts One (1942, released 1945) and Two (1945, released 1958). POTEMKIN is regarded as one of the most influential cinematic films in terms of technique. It certainly still has the power of a great narrative organisation and an emotional punch of great depth. This artist worked under the restraints of the Stalinist regime. "There was no special tradition of providing dedicated scores for silent films in the young Soviet state… And so it was when BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN arrived in Berlin without a score. Eisenstein commissioned the Viennese Edmund Meisel to compose a score, and that score has recently been revived, recorded, an added to a version of the film that’s currently in circulation. The first version of probably three arrangements of Shostakovitch’s music was produced for the 5oth anniversary of the film’s release." This performance is a new arrangement made by Frank Strobel which premiered with the NDR Radio Orchestra Hannover in April, 2009. Mr Strobel is the guest conductor with the Sydney Symphony for these performances. (Last year he conducted the orchestra for the presentation of Chaplin’s GOLD RUSH). Although Eisenstein and Dimtri Shostakovitch never collaborated, both worked creatively under the pressures of Stalin in their particular fields and the music of this composer seem to be a perfect match for the accompaniment to the film.

Music from Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.43 (1935-36); Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47(1937); Symphony No .8 in C minor, Op.65 (1943); Symphony No.10 in E minor, Op.93 (1953); Symphony No.11 in G minor, Op.103, THE YEAR 1905 (1957) make up the music/soundtrack of this screening. It seemed to me magnificently apt and was thrillingly exciting. The orchestra’s sound compounded the images of the Eisenstein film and left me in a highly emotional state at the conclusion. The sound impact was physically impressive and was in such synchronicity with the images that Mr Strobel needs to be congratulated on the achievement of co-ordinating the music to the visual masterpiece. POW.

This is my third Russian experience in the theatre this month. I am almost a Russo-phile in my immersion.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Let The Sunshine

Ensemble Theatre present David Williamson’s LET THE SUNSHINE at the Seymour Centre.

Oh, what is all this guff about David Williamson and all the other contemporary playmakers etc? Horses for courses. Please!!! THE WAR OF THE ROSES written by Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews, THE WOMEN OF TROY also written by Tom Wright but with Barrie Kosky (and I presume the up-coming POPPEA by Barrie Kosky from the Monteverdi Opera, Poppea) are worthwhile contributions to the Australian theatre culture. And, I have to say, my very pleasant night at the Seymour Centre on Thursday night gave another worthwhile night in the theatre. All of the above experiences different. All differently intended (perhaps) but/and all stimulating THEATRE. Whether I had spent my money or time well was not part of my immediate concerns or worries with this work, I felt happy, elated and immensely “validated” (how weird) as an Australian on my exit.

A few years ago I returned to Australia after a longer than usual stint overseas, and, one of the first things I did ,was walk along the concourse from Circular Quay to the Opera House Drama Theatre to see a play. The sheer beauty of the Harbour and The “Building” on a sparkling afternoon overwhelmed me and gave me a rush, of not quite patriotism, but, a relief of being home and a warm validation of being part of a tribe called Australian. (How embarrassment!!) The play I went to see was David Williamson’s AFTER THE BALL. I remember Gary McDonald was in it and that it had to do with families and their relationships after the metaphoric “ball” of someone’s life, and not much other detail, except the total joyful recognition of the characters and the events in the dramatised life of the play and the immense excitement of knowing where I was and who I was as a result of those few hours spent with the comic, satiric, dramatic machinations of David Williamson. I knew these were Australians and I knew, I, and all the people about me, knew they were as well, and, boy! were we rapturously grateful that someone could put us up there on a stage to give us the cathartic experience of recognition, confirmation and a sense of belonging somewhere in the world, together. I felt happy to be HOME amongst my tribespeople, and not amongst strangers anymore, and happy to be alive.

During and especially after the performance of LET THE SUNSHINE, I had similar resonances. Not as dramatic, as I have not been away from home, but still recognisably intense and gratifying. From the first simple moment when William Zappa appeared with what looked like a map in his hands to the long pained glance he gave to a pile of collapsed wood pieces and we, the audience, recognised the daunting agony of dealing with the instructions for what may have been an IKEA furniture kit, we laughed. Not yet a word spoken, but all of us knew exactly where we were. We all had been there. Puzzled, stupefied and momentarily hovering between panicked surrender to the problem and stuffing the mess in the storage room or a desperate summoning of courage to solve what we have been told is child’s play and finishing with a bookcase (in this case). From then on we were on board. Mr Williamson has the insightful knack to hone in on the sociological incidents of the world of most of his fellow travellers and the gifts to then select, delightfully, the right pregnant moments of dilemma and explicate them with wit and economy and meaningful impact.

This play about two sets of parents having to overcome there personal, sociological and political dislike of each other and to negotiate the relatives-in-law for the sake of their beloved children and the grandchild, is in the territory of Mr Williamson’s growing up and now old. We began the journey way back in his and our youth with plays of friendly recognition, we saw ourselves as the protagonists in DON’S PARTY; WHAT IF I DIED TOMORROW; THE CLUB; MONEY AND FRIENDS; AFTER THE BALL and many, many others and now with him, relieved, in LET THE SUNSHINE. Once we were "root rats and alcoholic, amateur politicians", and after many other metamorphoses we are In-laws and Grandparents. What we could brawl and sprawl about in our youth we have to tread more circumspectly around and find a way to civilly endure and negotiate because we see our immortality in the children and the children’s children and we definitely want to be part of it no matter what polite principle we have to seemingly cross to have it.

Story, characters, true observations of, wit and musicality of writing style make this writer a “genius” of the playwrighting task. What Mr Williamson has achieved, and in this play still achieves, is immensely skilful, and upon analysis is technically amazing. The musical scoring of the text is deceptively naturalistic but on trying to solve it requires great objective, classic, comic insight and “textual musical” skills. (Which, maybe why, Gary Mc Donald is one of Mr Williamson’s greater interpreters.) Within the “oeuvre” of this play in his repertoire he has no equal, in Australia, (He, also, writes very vividly in other “Oeuvres” very brilliantly Eg. FACE TO FACE, IN CONVERSATION, CHARITABLE INTENT.) It is interesting to see Brendan Cowell’s RUBEN GUTHRIE or maybe Tommy Murphy’s SATURN RETURNS this year, and see, from my perspective, similar, new generation attempts at the “oeuvre”. RUBEN GUTHRIE with a hot spot issue (alcoholism in the Australian scene) that needs urgent contemporary attention with its uncomfortable observations of parts our society, tempered with comic jokes to soften the cultural mirror confrontation for the audience and make it less hard to sit through. Or, SATURN RETURNS with the young and carefree, being confronted with the decisions of their life so far, being confronted by swift footed time - 29 nearly 30!!! YIKES!!!!! Comedy and what is possibly new, Fantasy (- one of the tools of the English writer, Mr Ayckbourne’s fabulous bag of tricks) to help the audience digest life’s bitter pills. Compare the achievements and see why Mr Williamson is still paramount in his field and I hope no matter how much critical pain he feels, will continue to survey and record the lives of a generation of his fellow Australians. (Kudos, of course, to the other younger writers as well, but study Williamson’s technique closely and with their own perspective gifts, the contribution that they can make will be as spectacularly continued and just as theatrically rewarding and sociologically valuable, I hope.)

Sandra Bates is directing her twelfth play by David Williamson. It seems to me, Ms Bates great gift here is to cast well and simply put the actors on stage and let them do their stuff. William Zappa, (one of Australia’s most assured actors),Toni Scanlon, Kate Raison and Andrew McFarlane ( in his sixth Williamson) are the older In-Laws and are wonderfully astute and clever in their playing. Mr McFarlane, particularly, is amazing in his adroitly comic choices, his daring audacity in the creation of the “capitalist pig, Ron”. It is a comic wonder of bravura daring. Here, is an object lesson for young actors to watch, an actor of consummate skill, especially in physical range and demonstrated flexibility, and great ‘bourgeois’ comic taste and timing. Observe and learn.

The younger characters, played by Justin Stewart Cotta and Emma Jackson ,ground the world of the play’s dilemmas securely and yet venture into comic creations that are finely balanced between truth and “dare”- dare to be funny. The coupling of these two actors together, results in a palpable sexual energy on stage and they bring it to bear, blisteringly, to the characters, that give dimension to the believability to the possibility of the relationship and its continuance. (I’d pay attention to Mr Cotta and Ms Jackson [no relation]. Ms Jackson has already drawn focus with a wonderful edgy performance in STONING MARY, last year, at the Griffin.) {Look at the talent here and in THE PROMISE and see, with the right nurturing, Australia has some dynamic possibilities for the theatrical stage to come. Intelligence, dynamics and passionate skills.}

Ms Bates has not solved the problems of the space between the short scenes well enough, her clumsy solutions jolt us out of the rhythms of the writing, and the Set Design (Graham Maclean) serves, but, is, once again (STEEL MAGNOLIAS) terribly old fashioned in its solutions and execution- the painted seascape backdrop!!! .The Lighting Design (Matthew Marshall) is a support. No Sound Designer (as in the Ensemble’s THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED) and it does demonstrate why and how this area of creative artistry has become as integral to the play going production and experience, as the other elements in 2009.

If you have missed this play and the performers you have missed ,in my estimation a very good, affirming night in the theatre. David Williamson is brilliantly, comically, acerbically, accurately back.

For more information click here.